Rick Rubin did not feel indebted to the 1985 novel by Bret Easton Ellis less than zero when he signed on as musical supervisor for a film adaptation. So he decided to do something completely different.
“The music [in the book] had a special sensibility for his time and I don’t know what the equivalent of that is today,” Rubin told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “But he [didn’t bother me] because I don’t think the movie has much to do with the book either. I didn’t really care what the movie was going to be. I wanted to make a good album that would stand on its own.”
He started out using a slew of artists from his Def Jam label, but the less than zero the soundtrack turned out to be more than a promotional tie-in. Under Rubin’s watchful eye, it has come to deftly reflect a moment of generational change. Act like Elvis Costello and X from Ellis’ novel were replaced by more contemporary hair metal, R&B and hip-hop.
There would be no easy nostalgia. Instead of including classic recordings by heart, Rubin reversed expectations: the new bands (Poisonthe bracelets, Killer) tackled older songs, while legacy numbers (Roy Orbison, Aerosmith) were placed in unexpected musical positions.
Jon Avnet, the film’s co-producer, immediately bought into Rubin’s ideas. “I love her music and thought she had the good side,” Avnet said. Shots magazine in 1988. “His ideas and mine had a lot of convergence. There was no fear of good old rock ‘n’ roll and doing stuff in both music and film that was everywhere. “
Rubin did not produce all of the tracks; Def Jam colleagues took care of tasks in public enemyOran’s “Bring the Noise” and Oran’s R&B tours “Juice” Jones and the Black Flames. But the album is nonetheless the product of an unwavering musical vision based on two core beliefs: the soundtracks are generally awful, and the source material for this particular movie just wasn’t that great. (Legend has it that Rubin never made it past about page 30 when reading Ellis’ story about the jaded, sick fools of Los Angeles.)
As for movie soundtracks, “I don’t even own any,” he bluntly admitted. “The problem is that there’s usually no thread running through the whole album that makes it [work] – just a selection of songs, and I don’t know anyone who is going to choose 10 songs that I’m going to like on a record label.”
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The less than zero record, if not the movie, tried for something more egalitarian. Rubin intended to focus on the musical interests of a typical late ’80s record buyer.
“When I read the script, I saw there were these rich, dress-up kids from Beverly Hills going to a party at an art gallery,” Rubin noted. “And for me, it’s a foreign image that [someone in middle America] probably wouldn’t like it. But if you play Aerosmith at this party, hey, that’s one party he could be at. I wanted there to be a connection, where he could say, ‘Well, if they’re listening to this, maybe we’re the same kind of people – even though we’re dressed differently and he has money and not me.”
Released November 6, 1987, less than zero came as newer, more aggressive sounds pushed aside so-called classic rock, and Rubin stood at the heart of it all. He had previously worked with Run-DMC and Killer, beast boys and the Worship. (Rubin was the one who first suggested Run-DMC cover “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith.) less than zero echoed that distant sensibility, as the track listing jumped from Poison straight to LL cool J. Jones finds a home between Joan Jett and wristbands.
Former Misfits vocalist Glenn Danzig, a newly signed artist from Def Jam at the time, handled the Elvis Presley– inspired title track; he also wrote “Life Fades Away” for Orbison, continuing an unbroken line of incredibly heartbreaking ballads for the ’60s hitmaker. Aerosmith retained the early rock-era vibe with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu “. But Slayer’s fleet and the fearless race of iron butterflyThe typically turgid “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, in particular, sounded like a bell ringing for the old guard.
Not everything works – are we to believe that Poison paint by numbers blanket from 1975 Embrace single “Rock and Roll All Nite” caused a drop in tension during the big Christmas Coke party? – but it’s a lot of his time. “I tried to give the music a real approachable, aggressive teenage feeling because the movie was supposed to be aggressive and teenage,” Rubin said. Shots. “The idea was to make the characters more accessible through the music they were listening to.”
Still, convincing 20th Century Fox to accept the 24-year-old’s tough juxtapositions would be a tougher sell.
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“Quite frankly, we all huddled on it,” said studio vice president Elliot Lurie. Shots. “We assessed the situation and we had some reservations. We all decided that overall it would be a great thing to do. It was an interesting concept because, on the one hand, I believed a lot in Rick’s talent as a producer but, on the other hand, he had never really done this kind of thing before.”
The film bombed, but the soundtrack climbed into the Top 40. Poison’s cover became the soundtrack’s lead single, but was quickly overtaken by The Bangles’ propulsive version on “Hazy Shade of Winter”. They had performed the Simon & Garfunkel song since their debut, and it helped shape the vision of the group for this smash #2.
Rubin disagreed. “We recorded the song and I was really happy with it,” Rubin told the Los Angeles Times. “We had an energetic, exciting and young record, a naive energy. I don’t know exactly what happened. They decided that they wanted to come in and try different things, but I didn’t like the changes that happened. I thought the drums sounded a lot more rock ‘n’ roll on my version than this one.
However, they were pressed for time and Rubin said continuing these discussions would have “meant that the album could not have been released anytime near the film”. Also, by this time, 20th Century Fox had taken a keen interest in the track. “We felt Bangles were particularly important,” Lurie said. Shots. “Because, of all the bands, they seemed to be the best basis for Top 40 radio — and very high acceptability at MTV.”
Rubin finally pulled his production credit when “Hazy Shade of Winter” arrived as a single. LL Cool J’s platinum-selling “Going Back to Cali” was released next, then returned as part of its 1989 million-selling walk with a panther LP. “Bring the Noise” also debuted on this record before appearing on Public Enemy’s platinum-certified record. It takes a nation of millions to hold us back.
Public Enemy would soon be found advancing less than zerothe mix-and-match aesthetic of, re-recording “Bring the Noise” with Anthrax.
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